Friday, November 28, 2014

"The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society" by Ellen Gilchrist

Deal Me In Lite. Week 22: "The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society" by Ellen Gilchrist

This week I drew the Ace of Diamonds and this took me back to the Growing Up in the South anthology and to a strange but captivating little story by Ellen Gilchrist. (The card image below is from my "Literary Aces" deck, available from Electric Literature.)

I was unfamiliar with the work of Ellen Gilchrist before reading this story, but it appears that she is another of our notable Mississippi authors, having been born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She even studied creative writing with the great Eudora Welty at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Even though this was a different story, I enjoyed it chiefly due to Gilchrist's wonderful writing style, with its cadences, dialogue, and sentence constructions. (More on that later, with examples.)

(Author photograph by Nathalie Dubois)

Of course, the title of the story alone is wonderfully evocative of the South, and is pretty much the main reason I chose this story to go on my list back in July. The title refers to a gigantic, ancient live oak tree that goes by that name. Are you familiar with the live oak? According to Wikipedia, the kind this story refers to is more properly known as the "southern live oak," which is fitting, I suppose, since I think these trees grow primarily in the southern regions of the country. But nevermind. The live oak is the most magnificent tree in existence, in my opinion, and a beautiful tree that is always a joy to behold.

The famous "Friendship Oak," a live oak tree that is more than 500 years old, on the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach, Mississippi.

This story is originally from Gilchrist's short story collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (another great title!). The narrative, set in New Orleans in 1971, revolves around two teenagers who are friends and partners in crime, after a fashion. Robert, a white teenager, is from a well-to-do family -- his father is a lawyer and his mother spends quite a bit of time on the tennis court and having her hair done. Gus, a black teenager, is from the projects but spends most of his time under the live oak tree of the title, which is where Robert meets up with him in the afternoons. Under the spreading branches of the tree, they sell marijuana which they get from various sources, including Gus' Uncle Clarence.

Both Gus' and Robert's families are worried about them, and worried that they are selling drugs, but they don't quite know what to do about it. Gus' mother sends Uncle Clarence to find him and look after him (which is a little like sending the fox to guard the henhouse, it turns out), and Robert's father makes a list of all the things in Robert's room which suggest that he is involved with drugs. (Number 1 on the list? A black light. If that doesn't take you back to the 1970's, nothing will.)

The culmination of the story comes when Robert's parents make plans to go out of town, and Robert and Gus take this opportunity to make plans to have a drug party at Robert's house. This goes awry, of course, and the ending of the story is suitably vague that you don't know exactly how it ends for the two boys. This normally irritates me to no end when an author does that kind of thing, but in this case, I found that it fit the story and the characters perfectly. Sometimes it can be a good thing to wonder how the story turns out -- it makes the story more alive in the reader's mind and memory, I think.

So I mentioned Gilchrist's writing style. Here's some examples from the story:

Gus would be curled up asleep in the roots of the tree. From a distance he looked like an old catcher's mitt. He wore the same thing every day, a brown leather flight jacket and a pair of indefinite-colored plaid pants so worn that the lines of the plaid all ran together at the edges.

And here's some great passages about Robert's parents:

Robert McLaurin's father, his name was Will, thought the spring of 1971 was the worst time he had ever lived through. He was a management lawyer. All he did at work was try Equal Opportunity Employment cases, and he had lost five in a row. All he did at home was argue with Robert McLaurin's mother, her name was Lelia, about whether or not Robert was taking drugs.

They argued so much about Robert they had stopped being in love with each other. All day long at the office Will thought about the argument from the day before and used his legal mind to think up ways to make his arguments more convincing.

And for a succinct description of Robert's mother:

Lelia McLaurin looked like a blonde housewife on a television commercial. She had a good figure from playing tennis all the time and she had a bad temper from getting her way all the time.

I think I will be looking for more works by Ellen Gilchrist to read. If you have read any of her stuff and have recommendations for me, please comment!

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